Hot Card or Hot Air?

You’ll know the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra has finally arrived because you’ll hear it two blocks away
2.5 stars
Manufacturer: NVIDIA
MSRP $399

Jason Cross

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

“At this point we’re supposed to have a video that comes up, not a short Chinese guy holding an add-in card,” says NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang. He’s smiling, as he almost always does in public, but you can tell he’s frustrated. Standing on a stage in front of a couple hundred press and analysts at Comdex in November of last year to unveil the company’s most significant product since the original GeForce, he has reached the point in his speech where a video should play, showing lots of developers praising the new card’s technology. But the screens behind him aren’t changing. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. “It’s not like we didn’t rehearse this.”
Last May, NVIDIA showed its new technology. The company was quick to point out that Doom III was running on an early version of ATI’s Radeon 9700 only because it was available, as NVIDIA’s chip would “tape out” (send the design to the chip fabrication plant) later that month. All the other NVIDIA graphics cards have taken just over 100 days from tape out to product availability, so we would see what would become the GeForce FX by September or October. It would be another three or four months before the first customers actually get their hands on it. This is not what we’ve come to expect from a company famous for its execution.
Unfortunately, neither is the finished video card. This is a dramatic new architecture for NVIDIA graphics chips. The “GeForce FX” name reflects the start of a new series, and how this is the first product fully designed with the aid of the engineers the company acquired after 3dfx folded. CG effects in the movies are created by running complicated programs on each vertex and pixel, termed “shaders.” GeForce FX is optimized to run fairly complex shaders, and can run more complex vertex and pixel programs than the Radeon 9700 Pro, going beyond the 2.0 shader spec defined in DirectX 9. It is, for lack of a better description, more of a “pixel processor” than a “pixel blaster,” and therein lies the catch: current games don’t need a pixel processor, they need a pixel blaster. It’s clear that PC gamers are headed in the direction of more advanced shaders, but for now only simple shaders are used, if any, and the rest is good old multiple-pass texturing and blending.
The first card in the GeForce FX line is the 5800 Ultra, a product so troubled that it will only be produced in limited quantities. It has a core graphics chip running at a staggering 500MHz, with DDR2 RAM running at a whopping 1GHz. Like the Radeon 9700 series, it has eight pipelines, so you would think it’s really great at blasting pixels up on the screen—500MHz times eight pixels equals a whole lot of fill rate. But it seems, and NVIDIA is unclear about this issue, that in the simple situations used in many current games it only draws four pixels at a time, not eight. The memory bus is limited to 128bits, while ATI’s top cards feature a 256-bit interface, so even at such super high clock speeds the 5800 Ultra has about 25% less memory bandwidth. This gives ATI’s card an advantage in many games, and at extremely high resolutions. In testing, the GeForce FX was faster at moderate resolutions and with some of the more advanced games, but crank it up to 1600x1200 or run slightly less complex games and the Radeon 9700 Pro pulls ahead.
Fortunately, the GeForce FX architecture is very efficient. It does a good job of discarding unnecessary pixels compressing data to make the most out of its bandwidth. It suffers much less performance loss from anti-aliasing than the previous generation, and NVIDIA’s new anisotropic filtering technique is a lot like ATI’s in that it changes based on the need in the scene, and thus incurs only a small performance drop. It’s subjective, but the AA and aniso filtering on the GeForce FX, while very good, look slightly worse than that on the Radeon 9700 Pro. The design is very flexible, though, and chances are good there will be significant performance gains through further driver optimization.
And then there’s the FX-Flow. This is what Huang called a “revolutionary” new cooling system to be used on all the 5800 Ultra cards, which he promised that huge room full of people would be “absolutely silent.” It’s a big plastic enclosure that occupies the neighboring PCI slot and sucks cool air from behind your machine, circulating it over a big metal heat sink, and then blows it back out the case again. It sounds like a hair dryer. It’s probably the loudest piece of hardware we’ve ever put in a PC. During testing, people would actually stop by the door and say, “my god, is that the machine?” The fan turns off when you’re just doing normal work in Windows, as the card lowers its clock speeds to run cooler, but then it cranks up to that deafening whine as soon as you fire up anything that uses 3D.
It has taken the GeForce FX so long to get to market that the 5800 Ultra isn’t actually going up against ATI’s Radeon 9700 Pro, but the updated 9800 Pro. What’s left with is a card that should probably be very good with future games that use a lot of shaders, but there is no way to test that functionality since there are no games that support those features. It’s only marginally better, and sometimes slower, with current games than the card ATI has had out for six months. If you can get your hands on one for about $400, you have to contend with a cooling mechanism that creates an absurd amount of noise. Maybe future cards based on the chip will fare better, but this one is not worth the asking price.

More GeForce FX just around the corner

The 5800 Ultra might be NVIDIA’s biggest misstep in awhile, but it’s not the end of the line.

GeForce FX 5800
The version of the NV30 chip most consumers will see will come in the non-ultra 5800, which runs with the core at 400MHz and the RAM at 800MHz, allowing it to operate with traditional cooling. It should still prohibit use of the neighboring PCI slot, but at least it will operate at a normal volume.

GeForce FX 5600
This revision takes the NV30 chip and pares it down to four pipelines instead of eight, greatly reducing chip size and cost. And speed. It will not use DDR2 memory, but at prices from $179 to $199 with all the features of the 5800, it might be a much better product overall.

GeForce FX 5200
The budget version just takes the same architecture and moves it down to two pipelines. The cache sizes and some of the compression technologies are absent from this version of the chip, and with only two pipelines it’s likely to be significantly slower, but talking about cards in the $99-149 range here. And no more MX fiasco; all the functionality will still be there.

NV35
It hasn’t been named yet ("GeForce FX 2” perhaps?), and almost no details are available, but NVIDIA is hard at work beefing up its current high-end chip for a design that will, it claims, totally reclaim desktop dominance. It may show up before the third quarter, and it’s expected to address the issues of memory bandwidth and noise present in the 5800 Ultra, among other enhancements.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150